Monday, April 20, 2015

Seneca, De Vita Beata, Books I-X

Seneca the Younger was a controversial figure in his own day. As Nero's counselor, at least in his early years, he was not exactly in the best company, and he was often criticized as a hypocrite: denouncer of tyranny, he served a tyrant; attacking those who courted power, he seemed to court power; criticizing political flatterers, he was himself often regarded as a political flatterer; censuring the wealthy, he was nonetheless quite wealthy himself. But it's also the case that much of this criticism arose from those who were politically opposed to him, and also that Seneca eventually retired to the country to live a quiet life. In AD 65, he was ordered by a paranoid Nero to commit suicide, and slit his veins to bleed to death. Posterity would be somewhat kinder to him than his contemporaries; his works were highly appreciated in the Middle Ages, and medieval legends said that he had been converted to Christianity by St. Paul.

The De Vita Beata (Of the Happy Life) was written about seven or so years before his death. It was dedicated to his older brother Gallio. (Gallio, incidentally, is the actual historical link between Seneca and Paul; he is the Gallio of Acts 18:12-17).

You can read De Vita Beata online in English in Aubrey Stewart's translation at Wikisource.

Book I

Seneca opens by noting that everyone wants to live happily but has difficulty seeing what it is in which a happy life consists. Thus we must be very careful to define what happiness is, and then lay out clearly the path to it, rather than wandering around aimlessly. The major thing to avoid is just going along with what others are doing or have done. This is perhaps easier said than done; the drive to conform is very strong within us.

Book II

The question of happy life cannot be determined as if it were a matter of vote. We should ask not what is often done but what is best to do. Instead of following the herd, we should "let the mind find out what is good for the mind." Doing this will get us remarkable results.

Book III

We need to find something that does not merely look good in appearance, but which is solidly and adequately beautiful. It is actually quite close to us; but we are like people groping after it in the dark. Seneca notes that he is a Stoic, although as a Stoic he must think for himself and not merely follow a prior Stoic philosopher; and the key Stoic idea is that "true wisdom consists in not departing from nature and in moulding our conduct according to her laws and model." The happy life, then, consists in the mind acting according to its own proper nature.

Book IV

The same idea may be expressed in many different ways. Seneca gives several alternative formulations in this chapter:

(1) "The highest good is a mind which despises the accidents of fortune, and takes pleasure in virtue."
(2) "It is an unconquerable strength of mind, knowing the world well, gentle in its dealings, showing great courtesy and consideration for those with whom it is brought into contact."
(3) It is knowledge of good and bad only in the form it has for mind, so that the happy person loves honor and virtue but despises fortune and pleasure.
(4) It is free, upright, undeterred, and stable mind, taking honestas (nobility or integrity) as its one good and turpitudo (baseness or vileness) as its one evil.
(5) It is "the repose of a mind that is at rest in a safe haven."

All of these are essentially the same, in the same way that an army is the same army, no matter what formation it uses for the march.

Book V

We can call someone happy who neither hopes nor fears; but obviously we need to add to to this that for someone to be happy requires that they know what happiness is. The happy life must be "founded upon a true and trustworthy discernment". This is the only way to rise above mere slavery to the pleasures of the body.

Book VI

But what of the pleasures of the mind? The same may be said: the mind must be governed primarily by good judgment.

Book VII

Even those who want to claim that pleasure is happiness or the highest good can only do so by treating virtue and pleasure as linked. Seneca rejects this notion. Nothing prevents virtue from existing apart from pleasure. And how can we make sense of the fact that some things seem pleasurable but bad, while others seem good but difficult? Further, even the basest of human beings can have pleasures. The two are not linked at all. Virtue is high, exalted and regal, unconquered, indefatigable; pleasure is lowly and servile, stupid, blind, a thing of brothel and tavern. The highest good must be something enduring; but pleasure by its nature is always transient.


Moreover, bad and base men take pleasure in their wrongdoing. Pleasure should not be the guide but the companion of a good will. If we treat pleasure as primary, it passes; it only has value if it is ancillary to greater things. We should be uncorrupted by external things, ready for any fortune, good or bad. Like the God, we may go forth into external things, but must always return to ourselves, and seek harmony in ourselves. We may indeed say that the happy life is concord of the soul with itself.

Book IX

But the obvious objection that will be raised is that we only pursue virtue because we get pleasure from it. While virtue may please, however, this is not the same as to say it is sought for the pleasure, just as a tilled field may allow for lovely wildflowers without being tilled for that reason. Virtue is not sought for anything beyond itself, because it is by its very nature complete in itself; it is wholeness of soul. It makes no sense to ask why we would pursue virtue; as our highest natural end, there is no further end to which it would be rational to subordinate it. What we seek from virtue is virtue, because virtue is her own reward (ipsa pretium sui). How could it be otherwise? If someone identifies a life as enduring, strong, prudent, sublime, healthy, free, harmonious, and lovely, what rational person would then follow this identification with the question, "What would make someone want that?"

Book X

The point of the position is perhaps more to insist that the pleasurable life in itself involves the honorable life, but this does not do any better. It's clear enough that vicious people have plenty of pleasures. And precisely one of the things virtue does is discriminate among different pleasures. Pleasure is for use, not decision. The reasonable thing is not to do anything for pleasure.

(to be continued)

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